DALLAS -- For 41 days, the blood flowed. Investigators took pictures. They took water samples. They did surveillance. They listened to swine cries.
But documents News 8 has obtained raise troubling questions about the handling of the Columbia Packing Co. case: Why didn’t the Dallas County Health and Human Services Department – an agency charged with protecting public health – do something immediately to stop the flow of blood into the Trinity River?
“If you see one mosquito with the West Nile virus, that’s enough to say 'let’s do something about it,'” Dallas City Council member Dwaine Caraway, who has been an outspoken critic of the plant, said. “If you see a drop of blood in the Trinity River, that should be enough.”
Zach Thompson, head of the county’s health department, defended his agency’s decision-making in the case and said the Dallas County District Attorney's Office advised his office every step of the way.
Thompson said he did not consider the pig blood flowing into the river to be a public health issue and said investigators focused on building a criminal case.
“It was a pollutant going into the water,” he said. “This was a team approach of various agencies who were looking at this over a period of time to determine how best to move forward with the case.”
The investigation into the meat packing plant began on Friday, Dec. 9, 2011, when a man who was using a drone to take aerial photographs of the Santa Fe Trail spotted what looked like blood in the creek -- not far from the slaughterhouse.
John Spencer, an environmental crimes investigator assigned to the health department, responded to the area and saw a “heavy, red watery discharge flowing from high ground to the creek,” according to his notes.
“The discharge had a strong smell and appeared to have fecal matter included,” Spencer wrote. “The charge had been occurring for some time as the ground was saturated, and a channel was made by the water flow."
On Tuesday, Dec. 13, Spencer returned to the property and saw a “discharge traveling down the slope from the creek bank into the river. The charge was dark red and a strong odor was noticed,” according to his notes. Spencer and Sgt. Joe Bostick of the Texas Parks and Wildlife took water samples.
Then Spencer returned two days later.
“At 8:10 a.m., swine cries were heard and [at] 8:15 a.m. the water volume increased and the water turned blood red,” he wrote.
That same day, chemists tested the water sample and found swine protein in the water.
“This swine protein and these toxic chemicals is at a level that threatens water pollution, i.e. contamination of the water in Cedar Creek,” according to court records.
In the ensuing 36 days, investigators repeatedly conducted surveillance and watched as blood flowed into the water.
“There were 17 observed discharges during that time,” Spencer noted.
Company officials were never notified during that entire time period.
“It would not have taken place anywhere else,” Caraway said. “It would not have been allowed to go if it were White Rock or Bachman [Lakes].”
On Jan. 19, authorities searched the slaughterhouse – and notified the company about the blood leak. A company official told officials that they make regular walks around the property and that they had discovered the leak two days earlier.
“We are correcting the problem,” Joseph Ondrusek told the authorities, according to Spencer’s notes.
Ondrusek told authorities that the plumber had come out on Jan. 18 and had “ran a camera into the sewer and found the line was broken and rubber gloves were clogging the line.” The plumber was scheduled to return Jan. 19.
“All they had to do on day one was knock on the company door and tell them they had a leak,” said Tom Mills, attorney for Columbia Packing Co. Vice President Rusty Ondrusek. “The pipe would have been unstopped that day.”
Earlier this month, Dallas County District Judge Fred Tinsley dismissed all of the felony charges against the slaughterhouse company’s executives after being requested to do so by prosecutors. In a plea deal, the company pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of violating the water code. Then they paid a $100,000 fine.
At that time, prosecutors alluded to problems with the handling of the criminal investigation as being a reason for the dismissal of the felony charges, but they would not elaborate.
News 8 has since learned the charges were dropped because the DA’s Office determined that Spencer, who took some of the initial photographs of the bloody water in December 2011, may have trespassed on company property. An internal investigation has since been opened for the issues surrounding Spencer’s actions.
Thompson said he was “shocked and disappointed” felony charges were dismissed.
“At the end of the day, they admitted to a misdemeanor charge that there was discharge from the pipes,” he said.
David Alex, the DA’s felony trial bureau chief, echoed Thompson.
“This company pled guilty which substantially limits their ability to come back on the city or anybody else,” he said. “They have taken responsibility for it being their discharge. For all intents and purposes, they will not be doing this kind of business there.”
Thompson also staunchly defended Spencer.
“I believe John Spencer followed the procedures and was advised throughout his whole process in terms of how to obtain the information that was needed to bring a case forward,” Thompson said. “We know one thing for sure, that there is no pig blood flowing from the Columbia meatpacking facility.
Caraway, for one, still isn’t satisfied. He said he’s asking city management to look at all of the company’s permits and make sure they are abiding by them. Mostly, he wants the company gone from that neighborhood.
“There have been other industries and companies that have been moved away,” Caraway said. “It should be moved away. They should stay in business, but in business somewhere else.”